Your utility rights

As utility bills continue to rise, it’s more important than ever to know your rights about disconnection.
 
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03.Your energy rights

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In New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT, consumers' energy rights are laid out in the National Customer Energy Framework (NCEF). Victoria and Queensland are expected to roll out the framework this year. The NECF won't be applied in the Northern Territory and Western Australia as they aren't part of the national energy market. See below for more information.

Under the NECF energy providers can't just disconnect you if you don't pay your bill, provided you take certain steps to settle the debt. Contact your retailer to let them know you're having trouble paying the bill, preferably before the due date, and you won't be disconnected. Your energy company must offer you a payment plan (unless you've failed to keep two payment plans in the last year) and must also inform you of its hardship policy. 

While retailers are required to have processes in place to proactively identify people who are experiencing financial hardship, the onus is on the customer to make contact and discuss difficulties paying.

Payment plans and hardship programs

Payment plans must allow you to pay any arrears in instalments. When assessing your situation, retailers should offer a payment plan that is affordable in your current circumstances. The plan should take into account your capacity to pay, the amount you owe as well as your expected energy usage over the next 12 months. 

You should only agree to a plan you can realistically commit to as provided you make the payments on your plan, your electricity or gas retailer cannot disconnect you. But you can be disconnected if you don't keep your payment plan. If you can't agree with the retailer on a realistic amount, contact your local energy ombudsman to sort it out. You can't be disconnected while the matter is unresolved with the ombudsman. If you are deemed eligible for a retailer's hardship program, late payment fees must also be waived.

Despite such consumer protections, the rate of electricity disconnections has been increasing in most states since 2009. One of the major issues with payment plans is that agreed payments are often not affordable, says senior policy officer at the South Australia Council of Social Services (SACOSS), Jo De Silva. A recent study conducted by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in NSW found that more than half of the customers offered payment plans thought they were not affordable. 

Even if you don't contact your retailer, you can't be disconnected without due notice. After the bill, retailers are required to send two notices and try to contact you:

  • A reminder notice can be sent after the due date which should be 13 days after the bill's date of issue.
  • A disconnection warning notice can be sent six days after the reminder notice.
  • Six days after the disconnection notice, the retailer is required to try and contact you either in person, by phone or through electronic means before disconnecting you. 

This process takes a minimum of 25 days from the date of issue on the bill. If you still haven't taken any steps to settle the debt you can be disconnected. 

Your energy and gas can't be disconnected:

  • on a business day before 8am or after 3pm
  • on a Friday at anytime or the day before a public holiday 
  • on a weekend or a public holiday
  • on the days between 20 December and 31 December
  • if you require life support equipment or someone in your home requires life support
  • the amount owing is less than $300 and you've agreed to pay it 
  • you have agreed to a payment plan and you are making the necessary repayments
  • you have an unresolved dispute over your account with the ombudsman
  • within 25 days of receiving your bill.

When you can be disconnected:

  • You've agreed to a payment plan and you aren't keeping to it. 
  • If you've made no attempt to resolve your bill, 25 days after receiving it. 

Wrongful disconnection?

Disconnection as a result of an inability to pay needs to be a last resort for retailers. If you think you've been wrongfully disconnected, contact your retailer, and if that doesn't resolve the issue, contact the ombudsman. In Victoria, customers are entitled to a payment of $250 per day if their energy or gas has been wrongfully disconnected. Under the NECF, if you've been wrongfully disconnected, the provider must reconnect you as soon as possible without charge. 

Western Australia and Northern Territory energy rights

Your rights may differ slightly in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, as they are not part of the national energy market and sit outside the National Energy Customer Framework

However, the same principles apply – contact your retailer sooner rather than later to let them know you're having difficulty paying and ask them what assistance they can provide. For more specific information see the Economic Regulation Authority's website in WA and the Power and Water Corporation's Stay Connected policy in the NT. 


 

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